UK Outdoors submits proposal to save outdoor activities industry

Kids love the opportunity to climb among the trees, zipwire high up in the air and crawl through tunnels, and outdoor activity centres are the place to go for all those things.

PGL Caythorpe Court.

But as 89 percent of revenue in this sector comes from educational visits from schools, the outdoor pursuits industry is under threat of collapse due to the coronavirus pandemic after more than a year without any visitors.

Government roadmaps indicate that children’s outdoor activities can resume on March 29, and residential visits on May 17.

However, it has been revealed by UK Outdoors, the industry body for outdoor learning and activities, that £600m of sector revenue has been lost due to the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown, resulting in 30 centres already being closed, 6,000 jobs lost and there are a further 10,000 jobs are at risk.

It also found that the 1.3 million activity days that were booked during the summer term are at risk, impacting 500,000 children.

Educational visits play a huge role in the cognitive, social, emotional and physical development of students and the benefits to their health and wellbeing and to socio-emotional learning outcomes - including self-confidence, teamwork and resilience - are well known.

During the past year, so many children and young people have been locked down in cities and towns with restricted opportunities to connect with each other or with nature.

The inequalities between groups of children accessing these benefits are widening. The school travel sector will play an important role in students’ learning and recovery from the impact of COVID-19 restrictions.

PGL Travel, a member of UK Outdoors, is one such company, with sites across the country and one located in Caythorpe, near Sleaford.

Jim Whittaker, chairman of Association of Heads of Outdoor Education Centres (AHOEC) and UK Outdoors Member, said: “Outdoor education is a vital resource for all schools with over two million children a year taking part.

"At a time when COVID has so disproportionately affected the nation’s children, outdoor education has a unique role to play in helping to restore and rebuild their confidence and mental health.

"This is particularly true for disadvantaged children and the thousands of inner-city schools, students and parents for whom outdoor education is a unique and life changing experience.

"Without meaningful action by the Government now, this invaluable resource risks being lost forever.

“So far 200,000 visits per year have been cancelled as dozens of sites have been closed.

“What’s important is how incredibly positive and resilient the staff have been because everyone believes in the value of outdoor education and how vital it is.

"For many providers, this will mean 14 months without any revenue."

Mr Whittaker said that every precaution will be taken at each centre upon their reopening to ensure the safety of all visiting children, staff and the instructors at each site:

"We’ve got comprehensive Covid procedures in place that we’ve had for months and as you can imagine, we’ve had plenty of experience in dealing with infection control when we managed the SARS and norovirus outbreak," he said.

“We’re also well used to dealing with groups of children, it’s what we do.

”We will make use of testing so that children can be sure of their safety, they will remain in the bubbles they are in at school and there won’t be any mixing. The only other people they will come into contact with will be their instructors and they will be tested regularly."

UK Outdoors has announced that, in conjunction with the School Travel Sector Stakeholder Group (STSSG), it has submitted a roadmap for the phased restart of domestic educational visits after Easter to Secretary of State for the Department for Education Gavin Williamson.

The proposals, which have been developed by 12 industry groups, seek to ensure that the sector is able to safely restart school visits over a year after activities and residentials were suspended by government guidance in March 2020.

The proposal includes:

• A request for amended guidance to allow domestic day and overnight educational visits to resume in the summer term, in line with background transmission rates in Tiers 1, 2 & 3

• Development of a COVID-safe operations protocol in consultation with Public Health England to allow centres to operate safely and within existing school bubbles

• Development of a Government-backed Insurance Policy to reinstate COVID-19 pre-trip cancellation cover in both commercial insurance policies and the Department for Education’s Risk Protection Arrangement

• Request for access to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport's Culture Recovery Fund, the extension of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme to 30 September 2021 and improved access to existing BEIS grant funding through Local Authorities.

Andy Robinson, chief executive of Institute for Outdoor Learning and member of UK Outdoors, said: “The pandemic and the Department for Education’s guidance have been catastrophic for the sector, with thousands of jobs gone and a worrying acceleration in the number of centres closing forever. Our £700m industry is on a knife edge.

“But with the right support and guidance, the sector can still be saved. Our Roadmap to Restart provides a clear and prudent proposal for a phased restart of the outdoor education sector in time for the critical Summer Term, giving providers a sustainable path to survival.

“If no action is taken and no additional support is provided, the sector stands to lose all its 16,000 jobs, snuffing out a vital British industry.”